Monday, December 14, 2009

The Folded Napkin

      The Folded Napkin ..

      A Trucker's Story

      If this doesn't light your fire ... your wood is wet!

      I try not to be biased, but I had my doubts about hiring Stevie. His
placement counselor assured me that he would be a good, reliable busboy.
But I had never had a mentally handicapped employee and wasn't sure I
wanted one. I wasn't sure how my customers would react to Stevie.

      He was short, a little dumpy with the smooth facial features and
thick-tongued speech of Downs Syndrome.. I wasn't worried about most of my
trucker customers because truckers don't generally care who buses tables as
long as the meatloaf platter is good and the pies are homemade. The
four-wheeler drivers were the ones who concerned me; the mouthy college
kids traveling to school; the yuppie snobs who secretly polish their
silverware with their napkins for fear of catching some dreaded "truck stop
germ," the pairs of white-shirted business men on expense accounts who
think every truck stop waitress wants to be flirted with. I knew those
people would be uncomfortable around Stevie so I closely watched him for
the first few weeks.

      I shouldn't have worried. After the first week, Stevie had my staff
wrapped around his stubby little finger, and within a month my truck
regulars had adopted him as their official truck stop mascot.

      After that, I really didn't care what the rest of the customers
thought of him. He was like a 21-year-old kid in blue jeans and Nikes,
eager to laugh and eager to please, but fierce in his attention to his
duties. Every salt and pepper shaker was exactly in its place, not a bread
crumb or coffee spill was visible when Stevie got done with the table. Our
only problem was persuading him to wait to clean a table until after the
customers were finished. He would hover in the background, shifting his
weight from one foot to the other, scanning the dining room until a table
was empty. Then he would scurry to the empty table and carefully bus dishes
and glasses onto his cart and meticulously wipe the table up with a
practiced flourish of his rag. If he thought a customer was watching, his
brow would pucker with added concentration. He took pride in doing his job
exactly right, and you had to love how hard he tried to please each and
every person he met.

      Over time, we learned that he lived with his mother, a widow who was
disabled after repeated surgeries for cancer. They lived on their Social
Security benefits in public housing two miles from the truck stop. Their
social worker, who stopped to check on him every so often, admitted they
had fallen between the cracks. Money was tight, and what I paid him was
probably the difference between them being able to live together and Stevie
being sent to a group home.

      That's why the restaurant was a gloomy place that morning last
August, the first morning in three years that Stevie missed work. He was at
the Mayo Clinic in Rochester getting a new valve or something put in his
heart. His social worker said that people with Downs Syndrome often have
heart problems at an early age so this wasn't unexpected, and there was a
good chance he would come through the surgery in good shape and be back at
work in a few months.

      A ripple of excitement ran through the staff later that morning when
word came that he was out of surgery, in recovery, and doing fine. Frannie,
the head waitress, let out a war hoop and did a little dance in the aisle
when she heard the good news. Marvin Ringers, one of our regular trucker
customers, stared at the sight of this 50-year-old grandmother of four
doing a victory shimmy beside his table. Frannie blushed, smoothed her
apron and shot Marvin a withering look.  He grinned. "OK, Frannie, what was
that all about?" he asked.
      "We just got word that Stevie is out of surgery and going to be

      "I was wondering where he was. I had a new joke to tell him. What was
the surgery about?"

      Frannie quickly told Marvin and the other two drivers sitting at his
booth about Stevie's surgery, then sighed, " Yeah, I'm glad he is going to
be OK," she said. "But I don't know how he and his Mom are going to handle
all the bills. From what I hear, they're barely getting by as it is."
Marvin nodded thoughtfully, and Frannie hurried off to wait on the rest of
her tables.

      Since I hadn't had time to round up a busboy to replace Stevie and
really didn't want to replace him, the girls were busing their own tables
that day until we decided what to do.

      After the morning rush, Frannie walked into my office. She had a
couple of paper napkins in her hand and a funny look on her face.

      "What's up?" I asked.

      "I didn't get that table where Marvin and his friends were sitting
cleared off after they left, and Pete and Tony were sitting there when I
got back to clean it off," she said. "This was folded and tucked under a
coffee cup."

      She handed the napkin to me, and three $20 bills fell onto my desk
when I opened it. On the outside, in big, bold letters, was printed
"Something For Stevie."

      "Pete asked me what that was all about," she said, "so I told him
about Stevie and his Mom and everything, and Pete looked at Tony and Tony
looked at Pete, and they ended up giving me this." She handed me another
paper napkin that had "Something For Stevie" scrawled on its outside.. Two
$50 bills were tucked within its folds. Frannie looked at me with wet,
shiny eyes, shook her head and said simply, "Truckers."

      That was three months ago. Today is Thanksgiving, the first day
Stevie is supposed to be back to work.  His placement worker said he's been
counting the days until the doctor said he could work, and it didn't matter
at all that it was a holiday. He called 10 times in the past week, making
sure we knew he was coming, fearful that we had forgotten him or that his
job was in jeopardy. I arranged to have his mother bring him to work. I
then met them in the parking lot and invited them both to celebrate his day

      Stevie was thinner and paler, but couldn't stop grinning as he pushed
through the doors and headed for the back room where his apron and busing
cart were waiting.

      "Hold up there, Stevie, not so fast," I said. I took him and his
mother by their arms. "Work can wait for a minute. To celebrate your coming
back, breakfast for you and your mother is on me!" I led them toward a
large corner booth at the rear of the room. I could feel and hear the rest
of the staff following behind as we marched through the dining room.
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw booth after booth of grinning truckers
empty and join the procession. We stopped in front of the big table. Its
surface was covered with coffee cups, saucers and dinner plates, all
sitting slightly crooked on dozens of folded paper napkins. "First thing
you have to do, Stevie, is clean up this mess," I said. I tried to sound

      Stevie looked at me, and then at his mother, then pulled out one of
the napkins. It had "Something for Stevie" printed on the outside. As he
picked it up, two $10 bills fell onto the table.

      Stevie stared at the money, then at all the napkins peeking from
beneath the tableware, each with his name printed or scrawled on it. I
turned to his mother. "There's more than $10,000 in cash and checks on that
table, all from truckers and trucking companies that heard about your
problems. Happy Thanksgiving."

      Well, it got real noisy about that time, with everybody hollering and
shouting, and there were a few tears, as well.
      But you know what's funny? While everybody else was busy shaking
hands and hugging each other, Stevie, with a big smile on his face, was
busy clearing all the cups and dishes from the table.

      Best worker I ever hired.
      Plant a seed and watch it grow.

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